February 29 2004

Trial Monday in rice pesticide-crawfish farmers case

Farmers who claim that pesticide-coated seed rice killed their crawfish crops will soon get their say in state district court. Jury selection was to begin Monday in Opelousas for the farmers' lawsuit against Bayer CropScience, which makes the seed treatment called Icon. The pesticide was designed to kill water weevils in rice fields, which double as crawfish ponds in south Louisiana.

The farmers say they were told the pesticide introduced in 1998 would not affect crawfish, but that it nearly eliminated their haul in 2000 and 2001. They want Bayer to replace the soil in their fields.

LSU AgCenter scientists said years of statewide heat and drought were probably the main reason for the puny crawfish crop. Production was down two-thirds to three-quarters in areas without rice, they noted.

However, the farmers say that another study on five sets of ponds that were adjacent but completely separate found that those without Icon yielded far more crawfish than the one with.

Timing matters, the LSU scientists said: crawfish did well in fields planted six to seven weeks earlier with Icon, but died in fields planted more recently. In southwestern Louisiana, rice and crawfish farming are done side-by-side or sequentially in the same field.

The defendant, originally Aventis CropScience, was bought by Bayer AG in 2002 and is now called Bayer CropScience. Bayer AG sold the pesticide involved, called fipronil, to BASF AG to meet U.S. and European regulators conditions for the Aventis purchase. However, it kept the right to sell fipronil in certain markets.

Bayer CropScience USA announced in February that it won't make Icon after this year because of falling sales. Remaining supplies can be used through 2006. Icon is also the only pesticide approved for use against another rice pest called the lespedeza worm or grape colaspis.
Last week, France's agriculture minister banned sales of fipronil because of allegations that it kills honeybees. However, the country's ecology minister acknowledged that the allegations have not been "entirely" proved.